Ruth was getting ready for her date with Herman, but her heart was not singing: she recognised she had rung him to arouse the jealousy of the man she actually wanted as her lover, and not from any real desire to see Herman, or get to know him or for any reason at all, apart from stupidity.
Like many of us, she was too proud to admit her mistakes when they affected someone else so, sure enough, she smiled warmly when she answered the door saying, “Herman, come in, come in, how lovely to see you” and offered him her cheek to kiss.
He had been cheered, and emboldened by her call, and felt a romance with her was an actual possibility. In truth, he had tossed and turned restlessly at the prospect of the date and the teasing thought he might be loved at last. Iit made him smile, because if he were honest with himself, always an unsettling experience, he knew his ex-wife had married him more on the grounds of common sense than emotion. He let that thought go and focused again on Ruth and her pleasing and sophisticated manner: she seemed, as they say, ‘well out of his league,’ but then it was she who had rung him, and opened up the prospect of magic entering his heart.
Once at the restaurant they sipped their drinks and studied the menu, then Herman’s hand moved over hers as it rested on the table. That symbol of gentle connection did not settle her. She looked up at his pale face and saw the cautious and possibly clumsy agenda in his eyes. “Let’s not get carried away, Herman” she said. “Sorry,” he replied, and the hand was withdrawn.
“She could act as she wanted, but after all, it was she who had rung him, and that must mean something,” he thought. He was sure the evening and atmosphere would provide him with another chance to establish their new connection: he was famous for his patient pursuit of goals. For her part, Ruth was looking increasingly at the evening as a test of endurance. Clearly, the man, as she now thought of him, had forgotten theirs was just a friendship and was embarking on a flight of fancy which could only cause embarrassment: it was important to nip that error in the bud, so she did what most people do: nothing.
The food was delicious, the music played by the orchestra was competent and unchallenging and the atmosphere at the table tentative and unsettling: no one had the courage to say the evening was clearly based on a misunderstanding. They ploughed on through the expensively provided courses towards coffee and release or, in his imagination, a promise of some sweet union which might draw him away from his solitary life.
In the corner of the restaurant, near the band, was a small area set aside for dancing. Already, in this expensive place, Ruth observed some middle-aged guy with balding head dancing with a girl clearly young enough to be his daughter and wondered what their relationship was. Looking at him, and then back again at Herman, she felt the whole evening to be tragic, possibly even sordid. How stupid she could be?
It seemed a place to her, where men clearly used their money to gain the favour of ladies who would otherwise pay them no attention. The food, produced with diligent thoroughness and some attention to flavour did nothing for her. The love songs played by the band floated over her head unnoticed, and all she could long for was the chance to return to her own dwelling, unmolested or desired: anything she wanted in her life was not in this room or in his company.
“More wine,” he said, and his eyes shone with brilliant anticipation. For his part, he could not fail to notice her uncertainly and a discrete edginess: he could not say why, but the image excited him. He mistook her nerves for frailty and anticipation, and did not realise she was suffering from a mixture of boredom and claustrophobia. “Where would you like to go after the meal?” he said, “Home,” she replied, and seeing his eyes light up added, “On my own.”
Finally, some sense of her mood seemed to enter his consciousness, and he settled back in his chair. The expensive Merlot, now free of that undertone of celebration, tasted inconsequential in his mouth: he would not be ordering another bottle. “Have I misunderstood something?” he asked her. “Yes, I think you have. I rang you because I was angry with somebody else, and not because I especially wanted to see you. I don’t want to hurt you, but I don’t want to give you the wrong impression either.”
No one can fault her candour, but candour of this sort is seldom admired. On this occasion, Herman sat back in his chair and looked at a woman, who now clearly wished to exit his life with a gathering urgency. He smiled and said, with a hint of iciness, “Glad to be of service. Shall I get the bill?” Ruth just nodded. The evening suddenly seemed to have become unpleasant, and she couldn’t wait to get away. “This is awkward,” she said. “I think I’ll leave you with it and get a taxi home. Thank you for a lovely meal.”
The surprise announcement and offhand use of cliché did little to settle Herman’s battered confidence, and he said nothing as she collected her bag and left the restaurant. The waiter, when he arrived, managed not to raise an eyebrow, smirk, or say anything clever, which was impressive given the fact that the first thing he did when he got to the kitchen was say, “That old codger at table 15 has been dumped. The lady just got up and left him to settle the bill. It was brilliant.” It was moments like these which added the magic to his day!